Unless you have braved the battle of parental depression yourself, it is difficult to imagine the burden borne by those impacted. When any member of a family unit is struggling, all are affected and feel the shared ramifications. Children are not excluded from this, and a parent’s depression follows them like a dark cloud throughout the day.
This is not to lay guilt on anyone, but rather to point out that depression does not limit itself to singular victims. In the case of parental depression, studies report that more than 15 million children are living with an adult combating major or severe depression. Let that number sink in for a moment.
With such a dramatically large number of children impacted, it is crucial that parents and educators consider the implications this condition has on kids’ personal, academic, and social lives.
If you look around, you can see how moods and emotions spread. Laughter is contagious. Someone snaps at you, you snap back. A sad movie will leave you feeling down, while a motivational movie will leave you ready to take on the world. Your emotional environment is a significant influence on your attitudes, thoughts, and sentiments.
The same is true for children, perhaps even more so. If they interact every day with a parent suffering from the symptoms of parental depression, they themselves are more likely to develop a sense of low self-worth and to become nervous, hopeless, irritable, or gloomy. Children may not even realize these changes, as those emotions and behaviors may have perceptually become the norm for them.
The imprints of depression on our children reach into every corner of their lives, even school. A recent study showed a direct correlation between parental depression and drop in child school performance.
Students carry with them to school the baggage of their home life. If they see their dad unmotivated to work hard, they will likely mirror that lack of motivation. If their mom is too tired to help them with homework, they will arrive to school unprepared. If the student’s heart is burdened out of concern for the pain being witnessed at home every day, they will not be focused enough to carry out the rigorous demands of learning and schoolwork.
For younger children of depressed parents, developmentally they have been shown to be behind in cognitive skills. When a parent of a preschooler is not able to devote full attention to the child or to engage in normal developmental and learning interactions, the child progresses at a much slower rate. These children are less prepared for school than their fellow students and begin kindergarten academically challenged.
Friendships and Socialization
Childhood friendships go up and down. Girls will be best friends one day, bitter enemies the next. Boys will get competitive and fight, and then totally forget about it as they start up the next game. If you add to this mix the complexities of parental depression, children will have likely been influenced by the social behaviors of their parents and demonstrate inappropriate conduct in their friendships.
Introversion, social withdrawal, irritability—as children see these interpersonal behaviors in their parents, their capacity to interact fittingly with their classmates and friends may suffer. Additionally, as they have an increasing inability to properly handle the stress and hardships that depression brings to the home, they may choose to engage in harmful relationships and behaviors as an attempt to escape or rebel against what has become their accepted life.
It’s easy to forget how observant children can be. They are continually monitoring and imitating the behavior of the adults in their lives. For this reason, parents must make their own emotional health a priority. If you feel as if you may be suffering from parental depression, please seek professional help. Your family needs you to be the healthiest you possible, and their love and support will help carry you through the battle. It is a war that can be won and, once the dust settles, your children will be the greatest beneficiary of your victory.